It was winter, a harsh winter, when van Gogh arrived in February 1888, almost exactly 125 years ago, in Provence. But the white countryside he saw was not the winter landscape of the Midi. From Arles, he wrote to his brother Theo: “And the landscapes under the snow with the white peaks against a sky as bright as the snow was just like the winter landscapes the Japanese did.” (Letter 557, 21 February 1888.) The imaginative overlay continued, even after the snow had melted. “But, my dear brother – you know, I feel I’m in Japan. I say no more than that, and again, I’ve seen nothing yet in its usual splendour.” (Letter 585, 16 March 1888.) The addendum hides the true splendid achievement, because van Gogh had just completed his first masterpiece in the Japanese high spirit, the Bridge of Langlois, which downright sparkles in its bright colours, in the sky, in the vegetation, and the clothes of the washwomen – “colours like stained glass” (Letter 588), colours that don’t correspond to the harsh local colours of the south at all.
What does this artistic hallucination have to do with Ulrike Seyboth’s paintings? Indexically, to use a fashionable term, nothing at all, because van Gogh’s paintings are largely confined to the conventional subjects of landscape, still life, portrait, and interiors. But principally, it does have a lot to do with Seyboth: Vincent van Gogh is, next to Claude Monet, the painter of the early modernism of the nineteenth century who connects the discovery of Japanese woodblock prints with the colour of winter landscapes, and thus intimates a change in European painting. One day, when the arguments about trends and theories have become historically obsolete, one shared condition of modern painting will probably become clearer: the significance of the white plane. Working directly into the canvas primed in white, i.e., the eschewal of coloured underpainting and the layer-by-layer construction may initially have been characteristic of the Impressionists. But viewed from the perspective of today, the alla prima technique was the harbinger of a kind of painting that in the twentieth century took the colour white as a point of departure and a fundamental factor of artistic expression: Matisse, Mondrian, the great abstract Russians (Kandinsky, Malevich, Lissitzky) and numerous painters who continued and developed the heritage of these pioneers after the Second World War, stand for this development. At the same time, drawing on the white sheet of paper gained a new rank among the means of expression.
Ulrike Seyboth’s works, her oil paintings and the acrylic gouaches on paper, are part of this larger context. One might call them abstract. But that doesn’t say much. Abstract paintings that rely on the colour white can differ considerably. Only one condition is common to all white painting, both figurative and abstract: the rejection of the traditional concept of the picture as multi-layered body. For painters like Ulrike Seyboth, the white plane is no longer a mere substrate, not a neutral surface which had to be prepared by coats of paint – by making the “bed”, as Delacroix liked to say – as a foundation for the composition. However, this light ground is also not a tabula rasa, not an “empty sheet” that passively awaits being written on. One must avoid jumping to premature conclusions in order to see the practical implication. In painting, white as a ground colour establishes a specific spatial sensation: a bright, diffuse and at the same time impermeable luminous space that changes its character with every mark attributed to it – and conversely sets up everything that it accommodates.
The mark and the place it occupies are interdependent. Ulrike Seyboth enters the bright square with a discontinuous brushwork, sub-formal signs that allow the supporting ground to emerge differently than would be possible with firm, self-contained forms. For example, with Malevich the use of geometrical shapes leads to a spatial separation and consolidation of the white radiance as background that is sometimes reminiscent of the golden “transmitting light” of religious icons, gleaming from afar. The whiteness in Ulrike Seyboth’s paintings has a different function. The loose distribution and occasional agglomeration of brush strokes – to call them discrete “signs” would almost be going too far – transform the white matrix into an undercurrent that sometimes rests in itself, sometimes twirls, and sometimes it breaks through the coloured clusters, or sweeps across them. A similarly agitated pictorial space can perhaps be found in Kandinsky’s “Improvisations” from between 1912 and 1914. But even there, the turbulence is created and steered largely through drawing and colour forms, whereas with Seyboth, colour blotches distinguish the articulation.
This kind of painting, which in the West only became possible in the 20th century, has a long and venerable history in the Far East. Under the rule of the Sung dynasty, in the 11th /12th century in China, a kind of ink painting emerged that went from the original formal style based on ideographic writing to a structure of free floating blotches. The Chinese called this kind of painting “boneless”, and it was not pursued any further. But when the Japanese adopted Zen-Buddhism in the 15th century, they referred precisely to this abandoned manner and developed an ink painting style of their own, which is regarded as a spiritual exercise visualising the paradox (so hard to fathom for Europeans) that the all-embracing and all-sustaining Being, vis-à-vis everything that it embraces and sustains, is somewhat akin to Nothing. The precisely set blotches of the Japanese ink painters transform the seeming emptiness of the white paper into the perfectly plausible presence of an almost tangible, virtually infinite space.
Ulrike Seyboth knows this echo of her painting in the ancient visual arts and the spiritual attitude of the Far East. In fact, she would very much like go to Japan for a period of time to find out more about this culture, even at the risk of encountering the grotesque imitations of Western modernism there. But her “boneless” painting, in spite of these echoes, inevitably moves within a different field of reference, namely one that is largely European. For one thing, her handling of blotches cannot rely on the cultural precondition of a pictorial art of writing. Even though the brush strokes in the oil paintings occasionally get close to forming letters like „O“, „i“, „e“ or „M“, and in the gouaches and sketch books word fragments appear frequently, these allusions remain pre-linguistic, owed to the involuntary proximity of brushstrokes to the gesture of writing. Secondly, her spontaneous application is not an act that suddenly darts out of meditation, not an act that might be compared with the performance of a swordsman, but rather a careful exploration, a process of positing and retracting, which, as Ulrike Seyboth puts its, originates from “silence”. In short, a way of “spotting”, if we take the word in the sense it was used in Goethe’s time, as an intransitive verb: “It doesn’t spot”, poets used to say then, meaning that their work wasn’t progressing, things were not finding their right spot. Apparently, everything is well once things are “spotting”.
This approach has in common with Japanese ink painting that is it not spurred by a goal-directed intention, i.e., not dominated by the painter’s consciousness. Hence the negative view of an “un-conscious” process is not utterly wrong. But when André Breton in the First Surrealist Manifesto” (1924) assigned this process to an entity of its own, the recently discovered “Unconscious”, and postulated a “pure psychic automatism” – “dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason” – the limit of aesthetic honesty and art psychological correctness had been transgressed. Breton’s chief witness for painterly écriture automatique, André Mason, became in the 1930s his harshest critic, because the encounter with Far Eastern ink painting made him realise the flagrant contradiction that such an art, not bossed about by a subjective controlling agency, owes its existence precisely to an overly alert, enhanced consciousness. Ulrike Seyboth has resolved this contradiction for herself on a simpler, less controversial level by speaking of the “dialogue” that defines her work. In so doing, she caught up with the pragmatic precision of Jackson Pollock’s famous statement from winter 1947/48, where he says that “the painting has a life of its own”: “I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”
But what is negotiated in this exchange? In the end, this question probably cannot be suppressed entirely. At the beginning of January, after a visit of Ulrike Seyboth’s studio, I was looking for the way through Ernst-Thälmann-Park to the S-Bahn station Greifswalder Straße, when at the edge of the looming monument for one of the heroic leaders of the pre-wart communist party I was afflicted by a strange stream of words, an “angewintertes Windfeld” (wintery wind field) of words like “ausgewirbelt” (twirled off), “unumschnürt” (unconstricted), “umbuscht” (embushed), “durchblubbert und durchpaust” (bubbled through and pausing around), “traumdicht” (dream-tight). The next day it became clear to me that it had not been my philosophical memory that had played this trick on me. It was the vocabulary of a poet that had been evoked by the paintings I had seen in the studio: “Lichtschaum” (foaming light) and “Atemkristall” (breath crystals), “Sekundengeflirr” (seconds’ shimmer), “wortdurchschwommen” (word-pervaded) and “augenwandlerisch” (browsing with one’s eyes), all the way to the naming of colours like “abweltweiß” (defunct white), “zeitgrün” (time green), “zielblau” (goal blue), “rotverloren” (red forlorn). There is evidently a connection between Ulrike Seyboth’s paintings and Paul Celan’s poetry.
This relationship is not based on an inner affinity of content, but rather on the similarity of the lyrical and painterly way of proceeding, aiming at a break with the usual way of dealing with images and words. Celan revokes the usual employment of language that sees words simply as denotations of something by shifting or blocking the direct relationship between word and the thing denoted, without however suspending the intention of meaning. Something similar might be said of the marks in Ulrike Seyboth’s paintings: the brushstrokes are not signs for anything – and yet, their making is by no means sufficient in itself, or “self-referential”, as we have come to name them for a want of explanation. Apparently both artists are interested in asserting something against what Celan calls the „bunte Gerede des Anerlebten“, the gaudy chatter of appropriated experience – or, speaking with painting in mind, against the redundant stereotypes of recognition. They want to put forward something that defies conventional denomination and rendering … and which precisely because of this emerges all the more forcefully when it is evoked. This is about as mysterious as the fact that we all know what is meant by the claim that someone has his heart in the right place, even though nobody could actually say where exactly that place is.
However, the space that Celan’s poetry opens up is very clearly different from that of Ulrike Seyboth’s paintings. This allows us to grasp an otherwise easily overlooked special feature of Seyboth’s paintings. Celan’s protest against the “light coercion” – Lichtzwang is the title of one of his collections of poems – challenges the “Lidlosigkeit” (the deficiency of the eyelid interruption) of seeing, the petrified perception that does not even know the moment of blinking and which is, just as the echo apes, just as “liedlos” (without song) and “lieblos” (loveless) as it is lidless, with “Dämmer” (twilight), “Wortschatten” (word shadow), and “Worthöhle” (words’ cave). In contrast, Ulrike Seyboth’s pictorial space is filled by a gleaming, winter morning light, in which the tricolour of bright blue, white, and bluish red, with which already Monet shocked the stay-at-homes of the 19th century, spreads a delightful freshness and clarity that is averse to any kind of cosiness. Apparently, the flood, “through us alive/splendidly uninterpretable”, which the poet evokes with surprising directness, can take on quite different faces.
The obvious contrast in the end helps us to resist the temptation to after all look out for a “Leuchtschopf Bedeutung”(Celan), a bright tuft of meaning. Instead, a poem should have the final word that in spite of mentioning a different time of day and temperature can be seen as a salute by the poet to the distantly related painter:
As colours, amassed,
creatures return, in the evening, noisily,
without a place to sleep
a pattering prayer
before burning, lidless eyes.
„Als Farben, gehäuft,
kommen die Wesen wieder, abends, geräuschvoll,
vor den entbrannten Lidlosigkeiten.“
All the quotations from Paul Celan are from the collections Atemwende (1967) and Fadensonnen (1968).
Opening speech on the occasion of the exhibition Ulrike Seyboth: fragiles
at the Kurt Tucholsky – Literaturmuseum, on 23 February 2013
Translation: Wilhelm Werthern, www.zweisprachkunst.de
Und Robert Kudielka